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The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study by Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan

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The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study by Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020. Pp. x + 306. $95.00 (cloth); $30.00 (paper); $30.00 (eBook).

Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study “declines to take up arms in the method wars” (9). But let’s not be fooled. This pacifism is not passive. This avoidance of “our metadiscourse” conditions an act of critical sabotage which defuses weapons of mass abstraction—i.e. formalism, historicism, ideology critique, postcritique, surface reading, distance reading, and so on (9). Buurma and Heffernan’s new history neither minds the gap nor suggests liberal, incremental readjustments. Rather, they make the claim—a revolutionary one—that what we “will watch,” “follow,” “see,” and “encounter” in the pages of their study “overturns,” “demolishes,” “scrambles,” “dispels,” and “dismisses” “nearly every major account of what the history of literary studies has been” (1, 6). They make good on this claim by shifting the site of a whole disciplinary history, situating “the core methods and modes of literary study” in classrooms (3). They identify the cooperative labor of teachers and students across the twentieth century, at a range of institutions (not just elite ones), as the real process by which “method grows” (3). The history of literary study is not (just) a tradition of iconic texts; not (just) tales of Johns Hopkins conferences past or Yale Schools or the initiatives of a handful of institutions. It is the story of all literature classrooms. Buurma and Heffernan challenge us to reckon with a capacious past that is daunting, exciting, sobering, and inspiring to imagine and study.

And I’m here for it.[1]

Analogous to the scalar swing from F. R. Leavis’s great tradition (five novelists) to Franco Moretti’s slaughterhouse (which figures the history of all literature), The Teaching Archive’s motivating image is an enormous and inaccessible past—an archival “record . . . of ephemeral acts and documents” that would “overload” us if it existed and we had access to it (14).[2] Multiply a lifetime of teaching materials—lesson plans, assignment sheets, schedules, feedback on student writing, progress reports, lectures, monthly calendars, handouts, rubrics, and examples of writing—by the factor of all literature teachers ever and add in the work of all their students. Against the sheer mass of this “rich ecosystem,” the “recycle[d] . . . tropes” of existing histories and counterfactuals are, at best, inadequate and, at worst, dead to the urgencies of our moment (14, 7). In place of disciplinary tropes—e.g., “the New Critical classroom” with “rows of desks filled with GI Bill students, mimeographed poems on a single page,” etc.—Buurma and Heffernan’s study introduces us to nine teachers and the courses and classrooms out of which their research grew (21). The Teaching Archive thus launches a collective project: “the biggest possible version of our past that we can build together” (213).

This aim corresponds to one of the teaching goals of Simon J. Ortiz who, in his 1978 Native American Arts course at the College of Marin (see chapter seven), “aimed to capture the ‘continuance’ of [a] tradition” (193). Triangulating texts drawn from different genres and distinct “moments in Native American literary history”, Ortiz “us[es] his syllabus to unify a wide collection of unlike texts from unlike sources with questionable transmission histories into a usable past” (197, 205). Reconstructing the continuity of a Native oral tradition in the combination of disparate written texts, Ortiz provides a model for reconstructing the continuity of literary study across the twentieth century, a project that promises to bring Ortiz into common cause with a century-plus of teaching and research. Buurma and Heffernan thus begin “the work”—with Ortiz as one model among others—“of stitching back together the long history of how our teaching has made our scholarship and how scholarship has happened in classrooms” (211). If it is the case that one value of the humanities entails the critical situation of our little lives into a broader sense of ongoingness, of a continuing project of making the worlds and values we live in and with, then The Teaching Archive challenges us to extend that project to the most common work that humanities scholars do: classroom work.[3] And, more importantly, it pivots readers away from speculative fictions about future classrooms and toward the historical recognition of what teachers have done and are doing—what teachers have been doing all along. Indeed, if The Teaching Archive is itself “usable,” this usability is most powerful, I feel, in the discovery of how rich and varied the literary teaching tradition is (6). I come away from this study with a sense of pride in and love for our field—especially in the accounts of cooperation and collaboration of teachers and students in these remembrances of classrooms past.

Beginning in the years of World War I and concluding just after the purported pivot of literary study toward “the demands of identity politics, the arrival of cultural studies and continental theory, and eventually the rise of new historicism and postcolonial studies,” The Teaching Archive covers much ground: the modernist-era teaching of Caroline Spurgeon, T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and Edith Rickert; the midcentury teaching of J. Saunders Redding, Cleanth Brooks, Edmund Wilson, Josephine Miles, and Ortiz; courses at women’s colleges, extension schools, community colleges, and elite universities (24). Methodologically, Buurma and Heffernan draw from “book history and cultural sociology,” “material text scholarship” and “critics who have looked beyond the metadiscourses of English” to generate accounts of these lives, research agendas, and pedagogies (17). One exciting effect of the disciplinary continuity that Buurma and Heffernan accomplish is the “overturn[ing] [of] our collective sense that something closed was opened in 1968 and after” (24). Decades before the canon wars or new historicism’s rise, for example, Redding integrated Black American writing, as we learn in chapter four, “into American literature by emphasizing the extent to which most American writing was unaesthetic and tied to its historical circumstances”; in his 1944 course on The Negro in American Literature, the American survey becomes “a body of writing fundamentally shaped by politics and history” and fundamentally grounded in a “critical assessment of African American literature” (109, 113).[4] And well before distance reading, reading machines, or the emergence of digital humanities, Miles (chapter six), Rickert (chapter three), and Spurgeon (chapter one) all advance—in the 1940s and 1950s, 1920s, and 1910s (respectively)—quantitative, computational, and/or taxonomic methods of literary study. Moreover, Miles—like Ortiz and Redding—is motivated by a project of continuity; her research into counting “emotion words” across the history of English poetry discloses “the unexpected degree to which poets’ word choices and syntax was shared rather than individually distinctive”—a finding that led her to recategorize poets not as “innovators” but “sustainers” (157; quoted in Buurma and Heffernan, 180). Without her classrooms, in which Miles and her students worked together to innovate literary research methods, such insights would have been impossible.

The Teaching Archive is not a “How To” guide, yet Buurma and Heffernan acknowledge that “some of the past teaching [they] describe seems new and exciting now” (17). I can confirm that reading and rereading The Teaching Archive is pedagogically generative. This past semester (Spring 2021), inspired by the example of Spurgeon, I asked graduate students to create personal indexes of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. As we learn in chapter one, Spurgeon’s 1913 Art of Reading course did not conclude with an academic research paper but led students “just [up to] the point where [they] would begin to write a research paper,” working slowly through a process of studying, note taking, and “coordinat[ing] information into knowledge” (30, 31). Index-making, according to Spurgeon, is far from a “banal scholarly practice[]”; it is, rather, a “thoughtful” activity that “encode[s]” the values and perspectives of any given indexer—“recording this and not that, subordinating one point to another” (36). Building an index of a text, or an anthology, reveals networks of ideas as well as chains of citations and references, “set[s] of strands that you can reorder and reconnect” (36). This research emphasis on note taking and indexing—not paper writing—encourages students to make something and also to acquire a personal hold on obscure or difficult material; moreover, this activity leaves students (including mine, I hope) with a surviving record of what mattered to them in their studies, an organized set of data that they can “then recompose . . . into the shapes of [later] interpretations and arguments” (37).

Dozens of other pedagogical insights, reminders, and ideas abound in The Teaching Archive that demystify the protocols and procedures of literary study and research. Perhaps many of us could use regular reminders that “[r]eading is in fact difficult” (31, see also 81). Perhaps we could involve students more directly in the design of courses and the selection of course topics (51, 75). Maybe we should rethink, rather than abandon, the lecture form (77). Those of us who discourage students’ engagement with biography—or strategically obscure its importance—may learn something from a teacher who assigns it alongside realist fiction (121). And what would it mean to step away from the paper or essay as the telos of a research or writing pedagogy? What could we learn from a pedagogy that narrows its unit to the sentence as a way to teach and train perspective-taking (156, 167)? Or from a model of survey course design that abandons chronology (195, 205)? Or the adoption of counting as a radical research tool (172–81)? On nearly every page, almost every insight and intervention emphasizes value as that which students and teachers cooperate in making and shaping and preserving together—values associated with beauty or goodness as well as with the knowledge of how writers make things, how researchers make things, how anyone acquires or changes their own preferences and pleasures over a lifetime, how to build collections, how to convey an idea that matters, how to work with others, how to track forms and ideas across time, and how “to construct solidarity” (205).

Some modernist scholars, and for good reason, may initially feel drawn to the chapters on Eliot (chapter two), Richards (chapter 3), and Brooks and Wilson (chapter five). Some may expect to find in these three chapters counterpoints to the rich accounts of noncanonical, non-iconic teachers and researchers in other chapters. Eliot, Richards, Brooks, Wilson: here, after all, are the authors of field-defining texts associated, to greater or lesser degrees, with heroic modernism. And yet this convenient abstraction—modernism—also undergoes defamiliarization in The Teaching Archive, and the stories we tell of modernism (whether old or new) may need rethinking if we follow Buurma and Heffernan in locating the classroom as the primary site of our discipline’s methodological development and innovation. We see Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), for instance, assigned in Miles’s 1941 English 1A freshman composition course at the University of California, Berkeley—half a century before the explosion of Woolf studies in 1990s (163, 168–71). We see Ortiz recontextualize N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) not as an instance of “modernist fragmentation” but according to the organizational logic of a simple “literary period course” that mediates histories “across wide gaps of space and time”—and genre (200). We don’t see Eliot rewriting English literary history by himself but, rather, negotiating with his extension school students so as to make courses more useful and accessible to them, given their “busy work lives” (53). Attending to the “lived origins” of what reception histories have conveniently “calcified into . . . the Eliotic canon,” we might recognize, in place of this canon, Eliot’s “conviction that people make literary value” together—a conviction that motivates the lectures he gathers in The Sacred Wood (1920), where Buurma and Heffernan teach us to follow the traces of teacher–student cooperation (64).

The Teaching Archive is a disciplinary account that may convince more of us, at the very least, to recenter the classroom as a value amplifier of literary research—including the living archives of modernist studies. Indeed, “the evidence of research in the literature classroom is everywhere once we look for it, from the collective close reading that unfolds in the classroom hour to the course lecture whose question-and-answer period restructures a book chapter . . . from class trips to the library to the creation of new reference tools. More formal research in the literature classroom thus looks like a small island—but is actually a glimpse of a submerged continent where scholarship and teaching live together” (212). This is a present—and a history and future—worth building and sustaining together.


[1] As are many in modernist studies who have recently researched modernist literature and culture within a framework of pedagogy or the history of education. See Matthew Cheney’s Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delaney, and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020); Amanda Golden’s Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets (New York: Routledge, 2020); Benjamin Hagen’s The Sensuous Pedagogies of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, 2020); and Natasha Periyan’s The Politics of 1930s British Literature: Education, Class, Gender (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). See also Peter Howarth (ed), “Modernism and/as Pedagogy [Special Issue],” Modernist Cultures 14, no. 3 (August 2019): 261–396.

[2] Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad (London: Chatto and Windus, 1948); Moretti, Franco. “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History 61, no. 1 (March 2000): 207–27.

[3] See John Guillory, “Monuments and Documents: Panofsky on the Object of Study in the Humanities,” History of Humanities 1, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 9–30.

[4] Buurma and Heffernan clarify that we should not mistake examples of hospitality toward minority or subversive “texts and modes of thought” in classrooms then or now as evidence “that universities throughout the twentieth century welcomed the students and teachers who incubated them” (24).